Review: 'Before The Fire' Quietly Intense Story of Pandemic, Trauma

by Megan Kearns

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday August 14, 2020

'Before the Fire'
'Before the Fire'  

Fire ravages, destroying everything. Prevalent in myth, fire metaphorically clears away the past, preparing for transformation. "Before the Fire" is a quietly intense, intimate depiction of survival, both of a pandemic and trauma. I love how the filmmakers use the genre as a catalyst to show a different perspective centering a woman protagonist, capturing the ramifications of trauma, and highlighting emotional and physical tenacity.

Directed by Charlie Buhler, in her directorial debut, and written by Jenna Lyng Adams, who also stars as Ava, the film deals with a global pandemic that spurs a Los Angeles-based actress to reluctantly return to her rural hometown in South Dakota, where she stays with her boyfriend's family. The second scene shows Ava and her boyfriend, Kelly (Jackson Davis), frantically driving to LAX Airport. Over the radio, we hear about the influenza pandemic, travel bans, and closed bridges in New York City. The film plunges us into disaster.

Ava stays with Kelly's kind mother (M.J. Karmi) and his gruff brother, Max (Ryan Vigilant). She settles into the rhythm of farm life: Pitchforking hay, bottle-feeding calves, shoveling, etc. Max stacks canned goods, telling her the house has solar panels and generators, a boon when the power goes out. Max initially doesn't want her there, and rebuffs her. But they eventually form a tender camaraderie as they work together; he becomes protective of her, and they open up to each other.

The alluring cinematography often features long shots and people in silhouette at twilight, maximizing the beauty of the land yet its starkness and isolation. The handheld camerawork lends a raw immediacy and urgency.

Strewn throughout the film are clues about the world. Scrawled on the side of a building: "No flu, no refugees." Broadcasts periodically reveal the U.S. has 90,000 cases, is a no-fly zone and is under martial law, and gas prices skyrocket. The film is eerily prescient: In one scene at a dinner table, someone coughs and blows their nose, fueling panic as everyone cautiously looks around. Even when focused on other issues, the pandemic remains omnipresent.

Like many other sci-fi and horror films, people are often the real danger. At first, it seems Ava doesn't want to return to her hometown because she believes Kelly's family doesn't accept her. We eventually learn Ava left home when she was young, fleeing her abusive father. When she first sees him in the film, she's visibly terrified. In a confrontation later, he says, "See what you're making me do?" — a common abusers' refrain. It's clear this is either a personal story or one well-researched. Lyng Adams imbues her acting with subtle touches through her facial expressions and body language to indicate Ava is an abuse survivor.

As a domestic violence survivor myself, I can't imagine having to subject yourself to your abuser once you escaped, enduring that terror all over again. While the pandemic narrative exists on a global scale, "Before the Fire" exquisitely examines an intimate apocalypse, how one person's world can end, and how they survive. Ava is like a phoenix, metaphorically rising from the ashes.